The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening & Closing Sutras
By Burton Watson
WHY ANOTHER ENGLISH TRANSLATION of the Lotus Sutra, one may ask, when there are several already in existence? First, I would reply, because language changes and translations grow old. The great works of world literature deserve to be translated again and again so that they will continue to be in language that is appealing to contemporary readers. The earliest English translation of the Lotus Sutra, that done by Jan Hendrik Kern from a Sanskrit version and published in 1884, assuredly no longer is.
Second, because each translator has a certain kind of reader in mind as the work progresses, and certain aspects of the text he or she is especially concerned to do justice to in the translation, perhaps at the expense of other important aspects of the original. The present translation, as should be apparent from the translator’s introduction, is designed for readers who have no special background in Buddhist studies or Asian literature. Thus, for example, Sanskrit names and terms have been romanized in a form that differs slightly from the standard form used in works intended for specialists, a form that it is hoped will help guide them to the correct pronunciation; standard romanization for all such words may be found in the glossary at the back of the book. The glossary will also provide background information on personal and place names and technical terms that recur frequently in the text.
The translation, it is hoped, will not only convey the ideas for which the work is so important, but at the same time give some sense of its rich literary appeal. The translation is intended to be in straightforward modern English. No attempt has been made, as in some translations of Buddhist scriptures, to impart a “religious” tone by employing an archaic or biblical-sounding style. Despite the often-noted resemblance between one of its parables and the New Testament story of the prodigal son, the Lotus Sutra, particularly in its thought, is rather far removed from the world of the Bible.
Why, one may also ask, if the Lotus Sutra is a work of Indian Buddhism, has the translation been made from the Kumarajiva Chinese translation of the text rather than from one of the Sanskrit versions? First, as already mentioned in my introduction, though we do not know what language the Lotus Sutra was first composed in, it was clearly not Sanskrit, and therefore the San skirt versions of the text are already several steps removed from its first written form. Second, none of the extant Sanskrit versions are as early in date as Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation, done in 406, and all but the earliest differ in some respects from his version. THus his almost certainly represents an earlier version of the text, one nearer to the first written form. Bust most important of all, Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation is the version in which the Lotus Sutra has been known and read over the centuries throughout the countries of eastern Asia. Buddhism died out in India long ago and the Sanskrit versions of the text were lost for many hundreds of years, only coming to light again in recent times. Today no one but a handful of scholars reads the Lotus Sutra in its Sanskrit versions, whereas Kumarajiva’s text is read and recited daily by millions of priests and lay believers of East Asia. It is the language and imagery of the Chinese Lotus Sutra that has molded the religious life and thought of the people of that part of the world and made its way into their art and literature. So it seemed wholly justifiable to make the English translation from this still living and vital version of the scripture.